Jenny Sanford: The Savviest Spurned Woman in History

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Mary Ann Chastain / AP

Jenny Sanford, right, takes her belongings from the governor's mansion with help from a friend in Columbia, S.C., on Aug. 7, 2009

The cheated-upon spouses of the world have a new hero, and her name is Jenny Sanford. The wife of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford announced on Dec. 11 that she is filing for divorce and has handled the denouement of her marriage in a way that makes losing a husband to an affair almost look like a shrewd career move.

Perhaps Elin Nordegren Woods, the newest member of the Spurned Sisterhood, could take a few pages from the soon-to-be-ex Mrs. Sanford's playbook. Nordic silence has its place, but there's a lot to admire in how Sanford deftly and subtly grasped her part of the narrative and spun it. Hers is not the story of a dull wife who was passed over for an exotic woman in Argentina, but rather the tale of the true captain of a family ship, unbowed by the squalls.

For starters, this summer when her husband held the customary I-have-disappointed-my-family press conference, she did not appear alongside him. This was a doubly wise move, since the governor apparently chose to make the most emotional and difficult announcement of his life without a script. Not only did Jenny Sanford avoid looking like a fool for literally standing by her man, she didn't have to be associated with what quickly devolved into a p.r. train wreck. (His rambling, 18-minute speech included weeping, a mention of his lifelong love of camping and a "surreal" conversation he'd recently had with his father-in-law.)

Then, not long after her husband's confession, Jenny gave an interview to the Associated Press. She was a model of control, revealing just enough detail about the affair to communicate her blamelessness in the events that transpired without letting her situation tip into the pitiable. Wearing a perky printed blouse, she stayed relentlessly on message: she was holding up her end of the deal — if her husband wanted back into the family, he would have to reciprocate. "It's one thing to forgive adultery," she said. "It's another thing to condone it."

She didn't even cede ground to her husband's evangelical supporters. While he continually compared himself to the adulterer's go-to biblical character, the Byronesque King David, Jenny artfully let herself be associated with Job, a far more humble, consistent figure. Although people of faith adore the redeemed sinner, they save their admiration for the martyrs.

Jenny followed up the AP interview with a profile in Vogue and a televised interview with Barbara Walters, showing enough pain to be sympathetic yet enough grit to avoid seeming pathetic. "Certainly his actions hurt me and they caused consequences for me, but they don't in any way take away my own self-esteem," she told Walters. "They reflect poorly on him." Perhaps the poorest reflection was when the governor, whose interviews seemed to be ever more cringe-inducing, said the other woman was his "soul mate" but that he was "trying to fall back in love" with his wife. Nice.

It's widely known that Jenny, a Georgetown-educated former Wall Street vice president, helped run her husband's campaigns. She seemed to bring some of the same acumen to the process of winding down the marriage. While she told Walters she had no interest in going into politics, she could. Very few people emerge from a public scandal with more dignity. And she's proved there's at least one governor she could pulverize.